Big plays doom Vols

Erik Ainge's injured pinky turned out to be the least of Tennessee's worries in Saturday night's opener at California.

The 12th-ranked Golden Bears got 7 points from their defense, 7 points from their special teams and 31 more from their offense en route to a 45-31 thrashing of the 15th-ranked Vols. It was the most points UT has allowed in an opener since 1893, when Kentucky A&M (now the University of Kentucky) drubbed the Volunteers 56-0.

Cal's defensive points came on the game's opening possesion. Tennessee advanced to midfield but Erik Ainge was hit by Zack Follett as he attempted to pass. The ball squirted backwards, making it a lateral and a live ball. Cal linebacker Worrell Williams scooped it up on a bounce and raced 44 yards to the end zone for a 7-0 Cal lead just 1 minute and 51 seconds into the game.

Cal's special-teams points came on a 77-yard punt return by DeSean Jackson, who led the NCAA with an 18.2-yard average last season.

Vol punter Britton Colquitt was supposed to kick the ball out of bounds. Colquitt, who hadn't punted in two weeks due to a pulled quadricep muscle, placed the ball near the left sideline but Jackson had just enough room to elude three Vol tacklers, veer to his right and outrun Tennessee's pursuit to the end zone.

"We went into the game (determined that) he would not touch the football," Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer said on his post-game show. "Then we kick it to him over there on the sidelines and didn't make a play that we should've made."

The Golden Bears' remaining points came on drives that often looked alarmingly easy. Quarterback Nate Longshore, rarely pressured by Tennessee's pass rush, completed 19 of 28 throws for 248 yards. The Vols' tackling was horrendous, too, enabling Cal tailbacks Justin Forsett (26 carries, 156 yards) and Jahvid Best (four carries, 46 yards) to gain yardage in big chunks. Cal finished with 230 rushing yards, up from just 64 in the 2006 game.

"Our inability to tackle their really fine backs showed up in a big way," Fulmer said on his post-game show. "I wouldn't have believed that anybody could rush the football on us like that."

Ainge, playing with the last two fingers of his right hand taped together, was brilliant in defeat. The senior quarterback completed a career-high 32 of 47 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns.

"I thought Erik Ainge showed magnificent toughness and poise, playing with that finger," Fulmer said.

Ainge completed 15 of 17 first-half passes and 14 of 18 in the third quarter. With Tennessee in catch-up mode, he was just 3 of 12 in the final quarter. He said the broken finger was not much of a factor.

"There were a few passes where it affected my accuracy a little bit," Ainge said on the post-game show. "But, for the most part, we got the job done."

Arian Foster produced a big game in defeat, as well. The junior running back had a 66-yard kickoff return that set up a score, rushed 13 times for 89 yards and caught three passes for 20 yards and a TD. Receiver Lucas Taylor and tight end Chris Brown were productive, too. Taylor caught six balls for 103 yards, Brown seven for 54 yards and two TDs.

The Vols' doom probably was sealed in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Cal zoomed 63 yards in five plays to turn a 31-21 halftime lead into a 38-21 cushion. Tennessee marched to a first-and-goal at the Golden Bear 3-yard line on its ensuing possession but surrendered the ball on downs after two one-yard runs and two incomplete passes.

As Ainge put it: "Three third-and-shorts (that weren't converted) and a goal-line (possession) where we didn't get in ... that was kind of the downfall for us."

Tennessee will try to regroup in time for the home opener Saturday night at 7 against Southern Miss, the preseason favorite in Conference USA. Based on the Vols' performance against Cal, an 0-2 start isn't out of the realm of possibility.

Fulmer probably said it best: "We've got a lot of work to do to get ready for the next ball game."


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